By Madison Fisler Lewis
Nov. 5, 2014. Appalachian State University Professor Richard Elaver has a lot on his mind from day to day. As an assistant professor of industrial design in the department of Technology and Environmental Design at ASU, Elaver juggles lesson plans, grading assignments and teaching classes in his department. But somehow, Elaver has found the time and dedication to invent Joinks, a unique construction toy that allows children to “bend the rules of bending.”
Elaver said that construction toys are a product of their time, and something like this has never been seen before in a children’s toy.
“Building kits are a product of their time,” Elaver said. “Lincoln Logs were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son in 1916, around the same time as Tinker Toys. Erector Sets were invented a bit earlier, and reflected the construction methods of the time. For years, I have been experimenting with irregular fractal structures, and we see similar forms in contemporary architecture. But nothing exists to play with those types of structures as physical models. So this kit is as much for adults as a byproduct of my interest in complex cellular structures, as it is for kids as a way of building new types of flexible forms.”
Elaver’s inspiration for his invention, he said, came from his son.
“It grew out of a frustration with trying to use existing building toys with my son, Simon, when he was 1-2 years old,” Elaver said.
“I was a little too eager to introduce him to Tinker Toys and other building toys that I grew up with, and he didn’t quite have the dexterity or strength to manipulate those toys. One day, I saw Simon taking apart a rubber spatula and putting it back together. That was the inspiration for Joinks. I thought, if he can take those two pieces apart and put them back together, that can be the beginning of a building set: a wooden stick and a rubber end piece.”
The project was launched as a Kickstarter campaign started by Elaver in March. Since then, it has been licensed to Fat Brain Toys, which is now responsible for the production and distribution of Joinks.
“Any designer will tell you that nothing is perfect,” Elaver said. “I’m still developing additional pieces for future kits and fretting about the minute details for the production parts. It took about nine months to get it to a working prototype, another year to refine all of the pieces and develop the ‘kit.’ The rest of the time was figuring out how to mass-produce and commercialize the product.”
The uniqueness of this product comes from the flexibility and the ease of construction that many current construction kids simply do not provide.
“With so many other building kits, the angles are fixed and limited,” Elaver said. “With Joinks, when two pieces don’t quite line up, you just flex the whole structure to make it align. It’s a more intuitive way of building – it moves with you. My two-year-old, Jasper, now plays with the toy. He can build simple structures himself because they’re that easy to assemble. Meanwhile, I have watched older kids make mathematical structures like dodecahedra. It’s very open-ended and the parts are very forgiving. The flexibility makes it safe and non-threatening. Recently, after Simon and Jasper constructed a big structure, they then piled on top of it and tore it apart. It just stretched with them and crumpled under their weight, but nothing was broken and nobody was hurt.”
The first shipments of the toy started to come into the United States last week, and Joinks are now available in stores, including at the Incredible Toy Company in Blowing Rock. To help celebrate the professor’s milestone, and to celebrate National Neighborhood Toy Store Day, the store will host Elaver on Saturday, Nov. 8, for a demonstration of his creation.
“For me, the fact that they’re (kids) learning about geometry and structures at the same time, as if by accident, is rewarding,” Elaver said. “You don’t have to know what a hexagon or dodecahedron are, but you might find yourself building one without knowing it. And isn’t that the ultimate educational experience? When you’re having so much fun you don’t even know it’s happening?”
Elaver will be at the Incredible Toy Company, located 3411 U.S. 321 in Blowing Rock, from 10 a.m. until noon on Saturday. Elaver will run a demonstration of Joinks and show children and families how it works. Face painting in the shop will be featured from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m., and librarian Owen Gray will be present to tell stories at 1:30 p.m.
“We’ll be playing with geometric structures, then breaking the rules,” Elaver said. “I really like to show a few possibilities, then let the little people with big imaginations take over. They always surprise me.”
“For me, it’s the ultimate accomplishment to contribute to the group of toys that I spent so much time with growing up: Building kits,” Elaver said. “These are the toys that led me to design as a profession. To be able to add something to the exploration of form and structure for future architects and designers is really exciting. This week, the first production sets are reaching customers. Thousands of people I have never met will be playing with Joinks all over the world. We’re sending kits to France, Australia, Brazil, Japan – all over! My family has been playing with this toy for over three years, and it’s unbelievably exciting to know that others will now be building their own worlds with Joinks too.”
For more information about the National Neighborhood Toy Store Day event celebrating the release of Joinks, call 828-264-1422.